by Thomas J. Joyce
The following obituary is reprinted from The Caxtonian, with their kind permission.
Fina Bray died peacefully at home in February. She was born in Pasadena, California in 1927. She was reborn as a Caxtonian in 1995.
In the early 1980s I placed a help-wanted ad in the Kane County Chronicle newspaper for my Geneva, Illinois old & rare bookshop. The advertisement beckoned with the triple promises of low wages, flexible hours, and an interesting place to work. That was when Fina Bray walked into my life and made it better.
Mrs. Bray had never worked retail before, but she was willing to try it. She came by her interest in books honestly, almost genetically. At the time, her nephew, Anthony Bliss, was the first Special Collections Librarian at Northern Illinois University. Tony’s mother–Fina’s sister, Amelia–had married Cary Bliss, who was then the Director of the Huntington Library in Pasadena. Cary’s father had been Henry Huntington’s original librarian. Today Cary’s son is one of the rare book chiefs at UCLA.
Fina, too, had worked at the Huntington, but she never sought a library degree. Fina’s husband, Bill, had been a naval commander in WWII, and afterwards worked as a scientist for Sandia Corp., in New Mexico. While he was stationed in Washington, D. C., Fina had found work at The Folger Shakespeare Library. Her favorite anecdote from her time at the Folger concerned Mr. Charlton Hinman. Prof. Hinman later achieved global renown for his landmark researches into the textual history of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
To pursue his research, which involved a page-by-page, word-by-word scrutiny of every First Folio he could put his hands upon, he had to invent the Hinman Collator device. His work was VERY IMPORTANT. He was not to be trifled with. On one night in particular, at the Folger closing time was imminent, and Fina was tasked with getting everyone out of the library. Hinman refused to go, and even tried to ‘pull rank’ on Fina, claiming that he out-ranked her husband, and he ordered her to leave him alone. Fina was not intimidated, nor was she impressed with naval officers in her library: she arranged for the guards to guide Mr. Hinman to the exit forthwith. Mr. Hinman never again tried to pull rank on her.
In July of 1983, I moved my business to the South Loop. Josephine could not move with me, although she did continue to assist me for projects such as the Printers Row Book Fair and the International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Palmer House. While at Joyce and Company Fina had been handling the book search operations. She decided she could continue that activity on her own, and she founded “J. Bray Book Search.” This was in the tradition of Chicago book search firms most excellently represented by Reinhold Pabel as early as 1948, when he established The Chicago Book Mart as a search firm. [Note: Pabel was a German P.O.W. incarcerated outside Peoria during WWII. His memoir, Enemies Are Human (1955), describes his adventures as an escapee, finally working at Kroch’s & Brentano’s.]
Astonishment is what I felt months later when I first learned that my long-time friend and fellow Caxtonian, Charley Shields, had owned and operated The Chicago Book Mart for almost two decades. And it was for sale. I urged Fina to buy it from Charley to acquire the credibility and brand name that it would bring with it, to make her a serious player in the trade. Fina and Bill bought it as a retirement project for the two of them. In addition to the Book Mart’s legendary yellow mailers, they later bought a desktop computer to both speed up and simplify the tasks of creating and mailing their monthly list of Books Wanted. Fina worked hard to learn the exasperating intricacies of the computer.
Her husband, Bill, a communications scientist, tried to help, but his Parkinson’s disease did not allow his body to perform what his fine brain wanted it to do. Their son, David, did what he could to help, but ultimately they were swept aside by the technologies that all but eliminated printed lists for digital book searches. There were fewer and fewer bookshop owners who would read the lists and respond. Gradually the Chicago Book Mart was shelved.
Ace bookman Terry Tanner and I first heard the name of author Frank Waters at a publication party for The Swallow Press, at Van Allen Bradley’s Heritage Bookshop, then on Michigan Avenue. Terry went on to befriend Frank Waters, and eventually wrote the bibliography of Waters (which was published by David Meyers in 1983). But Fina had read and begun collecting Frank Waters works back in the 1950s, when they were living in Los Alamos, New Mexico. She had quite a nice collection of this Native American author who should be known by anyone with an interest in the American Southwest.
Prior to joining The Caxton Club in 1995, Fina was an active member of the west suburban bibliophilic group, The D.O.F.O.B.S. (The Damned Old Fools Over Books). In addition to myself, other proud Dofobs included Susan Hanes, Frank Piehl, the Cotners, JoAnne Baumgartner, Jean Larkin, Colleen Dionne, and Charles Miner. It was not unusual to find them carpooling into Chicago, picking up members from as far west as Sycamore, trying to beat the rush hour traffic. Dofobs are known for their love of books, food, adult beverages, and the company of each other, and Fina combined them all when she frequently hosted Dofob meetings in her home.
Two more characteristics of Fina were intimately tied to her family surname of Baker. They were descendants from Edward Baker of Springfield, Illinois, a close friend to Abraham Lincoln. Born Josephine Baker, Fina took a mischievous pleasure in sharing a name with the between-the-wars sultry superstar entertainer in Paris, who was known as “Bronze Venus” or, simply, “La Baker.” Also, through the Edward Bakers, Fina was related to Mary Todd Lincoln. Fina had a shelf of books about the Bakers and Mary Todd, and some family relics. She particularly enjoyed the connection of living in Batavia, the site of Bellevue Place, the sanatorium to which Robert Todd Lincoln entrusted his mother for treatment.
Finally, she loved her cigarettes. Typically Fina only smoked 2 or 3 cigs each day, but she anticipated each and every one. I suspect that she always thought it was not properly lady-like to smoke, but it seemed to help the first martini of the evening to go down.
Serially, she had Bichon Frise dogs, and she loved every one–altho I could not tell them apart.
I never see a Bichon Frise without thinking of Fina, and I am sure that I never will.